The Influences of Star Wars: Once Upon a Time in the West

Jesse Percival
Dec 15, 2015 · 3 min read

The Spaghetti Western, one of the great genre film cycles to emerge out of the 60’s. For those who aren’t fully aware of what this genre entails, the Spaghetti Western is essentially a western film made by Italians. These films often dealt with darker themes with morally ambiguous characters in comparison to the classic American Western. Americans had become bored of the old Westerns and the Spaghetti Western soon overtook the market, it would be the last time Westerns made a huge impact at the box office. The most famous of these films is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the last film in the Dollars Trilogy. Beginning with A Fistful of Dollars (a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo), the Dollars Trilogy came to epitomize the very essence of what these movies were, edgy and fun. At the helm of the trilogy was Sergio Leone, the Godfather of the Spaghetti Western. Though he only directed 9 features, Leone’s credits as a second unit director would be enough to impresses event he casual viewer, with films such as Bicycle Thieves and Ben-Hur under his belt. His own films represent some of the best genre entertainment out there, and I highly recommend his entire body of work. George Lucas, a man who became famous for essentially repurposing a film by Akira Kurosawa, saw fit to also take influence from Leone, a director who became famous for his remake of a Kurosawa classic. Ironically, Kurosawa’s films that these filmmakers were inspired by are in turn inspired by the films of John Ford. It’s a long line of classic Westerns turning into other genres and in turn turning into yet another genre, the great artistic remix.

The Leone film Lucas owes the most too is Once Upon a Time in the West, the first film of Leone’s post Dollars Trilogy career. The film concerns a fight over land that could be used for railroads (sort of a stock Western plot). A railroad baron hires killers to take out the owner of the land, but soon the land reverts to the owner’s wife. Two outlaws take to arms to protect this woman and it becomes a war between he two sides.

Lucas takes no real plot cues from here, but tone and editing are clearly key to what Lucas had in mind for his trilogy as a whole. Leone’s film isn’t fast paced as some of his other work, it’s slow and methodical. There’s a suspense in the action, we delve into the character’s psyches and one feels the tension of every standoff. This has a lot in common with the approach to The Empire Strikes Back. There are certainly fight scenes, but they’re drawn out. The outcome is unpredictable because they just keep building the tension. The shades of grey Leone deals with is also more visible in Empire. Star Wars is a tale of good vs. evil, the hero’s journey. Yet along that journey there will be heavy shades of grey. There are defined sides, but there’s a lot of grey in-between those sides. Think to the scene where Luke fights the imaginary Vader on Dagobah. It’s slow and methodical, building tension to the first strike. We know it can’t be real, but what does it mean? We see Luke’s own face in the Vader helmet. Luke could very well fall to the dark side of the force. This is a somewhat common theme, but the way Lucas executes it is in a Leone style of meditation. Action must be taken, but all actions have their consequences. It’s been said that while editing Empire, the team utilized the soundtrack to Leone’s western to help get the tone right. I’d certainly believe it.

Jesse Percival

Written by

Filmmaker & Cinephile

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